Can Decision Fatigue Skew Focus Groups?

by Barbara Milgram | Posted in Focus Groups, Research |




With great interest, I recently read “To Choose is to Lose” , an article in The New York Times magazine about decision fatigue.  Someone working in a social psychology lab uncovered the “decision fatigue” phenomenon by observing data showing that mental energy and the ability to evaluate options and make decisions is finite, and runs especially low toward the end of a day.

A postdoctoral fellow working at this same lab noticed this while registering for wedding gifts.  At the end of the day, when her mental energy was low, her tendency was to pick anything.  The burnt orange coffee pot?  Why not?  The Mickey Mouse dish set?  Fine, whatever!  Just no more thinking!  No more deciding!

I knew it!  This article confirmed what I’ve always sensed.  Having facilitated hundreds of evening focus groups, I now have a scientific name for what I sensed intuitively.  Consumers in evening focus groups suffer from “decision fatigue”.

While I’ve got a huge toolbox of tricks to inspire a “second wind”, I still wonder…. would the outcome be different if the groups weren’t held at the end of the day?

Saturday groups are a fantastic alternative.  No decision fatigue and lots of energy and involvement.  But this is not a perfect solution since people don’t like working weekends.

I’ve done morning or daytime groups, which are also great, but these can be more costly because of the higher incentives needed to draw “working” folks.  They might even be more time consuming because of how much more difficult it would be to get people to come during the day.

These are definite hurdles, but it always makes me wonder if working the occasional Saturday, paying a bit more, or taking one or two extra weeks might not radically impact the outcome of the research.  Maybe groups among people not afflicted by “decision fatigue” would yield more productive, rich and rewarding results.  The return on investment could be astronomical and maybe for those high-profile projects, it’s worth considering.

What do you think?

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